The Reader Recommends: The Common Reader

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (Volume 1)

I thought that I knew what Virginia Woolf had to offer from To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, someone both in retreat and brimming over at the same time, a little too knowing about not knowing. Well, I got her wrong. If you read The Common Reader you’ll find one of the most solid and sane of minds and, for all her Bloomsbury setness, she’s not in the least high-brow. I’d like to claim her as an honourable member of The Reader set too. Here’s how she opens the book:

There is a sentence in Dr Johnson’s ‘Life of Gray’ which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. ‘. . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.’

[. . .]

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Like a burrowing animal or any creature ‘guided by instinct’ to build a home, the common reader grabs this and that from books, whatever comes to hand, and not for the purposes of learning or for artistry but for the more humble and grand purpose of shaping a sense of the world that will let you live. I love how Johnson and Woolf leave our faults intact: ‘worse educated’, ‘hasty, inaccurate and superficial’ and value those very faults for the honest reality-seeking they betray. The result might be a ‘rickety and ramshackle fabric’ and not ‘the real object’ but the structure looks enough like reality to create a space for all that actually is real: ‘affection, laughter, and argument’.

The common reader is a pioneer, an inheritor of Adam and Eve, and it is fitting that somehow, by democracy, genetics or luck, we decide the ‘poetical honours’, which in turn allow the survival of Hardy, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, and the continuing reality of Virginia Woolf, the Psalms and whoever else of all the writers have made it into our home. Art is for using and the use we put it to is reality.

The Common Reader is made up of essays on whatever takes Woolf’s attention and they are illuminating pieces, as in the second essay, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, where she ascribes the remote utterances of Greek drama to the out-of-doors demands of the audience, as contrasted with Northern Europe’s indoors state of mind:

In fact, of course, these Queens and Princesses were out of doors, with the bees buzzing past them, shadows crossing them, and the wind taking their draperies. They were speaking to an enormous audience rayed round them on one of those brilliant southern days when the sun is so hot and yet the air so exciting. The poet, therefore, had to bethink him, not of some theme which could be read for hours in privacy, but of something emphatic, familiar, brief, that would carry, instantly and directly, to an audience of seventeen thousand people perhaps, with ears and eyes eager and attentive, with bodies whose muscles would grow stiff if they sat too long without diversion.

Her grasp of remoteness gives you a glance at the living (though long dead) faces of the audience, and succeeds in gaining a sense of closeness through intuiting the need of asperity. The book is full of insights like this that put you in place to understand better. There’s Chaucer, Conrad, the Elizabethans, Daniel Defoe, Austen, Eliot and much more. Don’t do without this book any longer! Now all I need is Volume 2.

4 thoughts on “The Reader Recommends: The Common Reader”

  1. I am currently reading Virginia Woolf, as a common reader and loving discovering her work. The impression of her to so many is of a difficult author who was mad and depressed! I am enjoying discovering her work and writing style and constantly bowled over by the sheer volume and variety of her work!

  2. Hi Flo, I think I used to get put off Woolf simply because she was so very elegant and lovely in that famous picture — of all the daft reasons to doubt a writer! Like I’d give a second thought to what Hardy looks like, or Conrad. Or maybe it was a fear of the Bloomsbury world. I dunno. But whenever I put my prejudices aside, I enjoy her immensely.

    The Common Reader is the turnaround book for me though. She’s simply great company there and puts you in the company of all the other great writers that she’s talking about. It’s refreshingly plain and intelligent.

    Agree with your ‘bowled over by volume and variety’ comment altogether, especially in To the Lighthouse. I always feel slightly drunk or dizzy with that book. You’re precisely in the moment, looking at the packages in Mrs Ramsey’s basket (or whatever) and dazzled by an out-of-reach big thought about what really matters at the same time.

  3. I found The Common Reader to be typical of the Bloomsbury set’s elitist attitudes. I think that those attitudes do tie in with much of the understanding of today. That Woolf positively quotes Johnson’s definition of ‘The Common Reader’ makes this plain.
    It is sad that Woolf, one of the most demanding writers of the 20th century, should have such a narrow view but it was typical of the times.

    These days this sort of elitism is common coinage. It suggests that ordinary people are incapable of appreciating real art as a discourse between the artist and society. Instead it seems to be accepted that the majority can only find stimulation in entertainment.

    Woolf certainly was of the opinion that this inability of the majority to engage with arts was something that could be found in the nature of man. That she, and her fellow Bloomsbury set, stood above the everyday and were blessed with a special gift.

    Truth is that for many, particularly the Working Class, the reasons for the inability to engage with arts could be found within the structure of society (working hours, the education system, etc.).

    Since that time society has advanced. I recall that at school, in the early 1970s, reading Steinbeck, Orwell, Conrad as well as Shakespeare in Elizabethan (bi-lingual editions were unheard of in schools) and this was in a bog-standard secondary modern, rumoured, at the time, to have the highest crime rate in the Midlands.

    Over the past couple of decades though, the pendulum has swung back to the elitist view of the ordinary person as a tabloid reading, soap watching philistine. Attempts to bring art to the masses begin with the idea that the masses are too stupid and therefore art has to be presented as entertainment.. Thus we have King Lear, at the Everyman last year, presented as a musical, complete with dancing and barely audible dialogue.

    I am of the belief that ordinary people, given the opportunity, can engage with art on any level. The critical faculties of the masses are up to the task of deconstructing any book, piece of composed music or an art installation.

    Those who wish to bring art to the masses should recognise this but also should realise themselves, that art has the ability to raise our understanding of the world, to take us out of the humdrum of day-to-day existence, not as a diversion (as entertainment does) but as a spiritual experience that raises our consciousness of the greatness of mankind as well as the potential of the individual.

    In short, the values that the elite hold to when it comes to the appreciation of the arts should be brought to the masses and the idea that art has to appeal to the lowest common denominator should be rejected for the reactionary snobbery that it is.

  4. Hah! You had the highest crime rate in the Midlands. My home town (Walsall) when I was growing up had the highest mortality rate from curable diseases, but the schools were good there too and we read lots of things (Hopkins, Lawrence, Donne, Shakespeare, Beckett, Chaucer etc) both for examinations and as ordinary classroom reading.

    I agree altogether with what you’re saying about reading the great things undaunted, undiluted, and without regard to class. On the other hand, it would worry me if we were to start to avoid great literature because of the perceived political opinions of the writers. That would surely bring about the narrowness you’re keen to avoid. I don’t believe that Woolf or Johnson are being elitist in talking about ‘the common reader’. There might be a distinction made between professional reading and reading for serious pleasure, but the dignity and the liveliness all lie on the side of the common reader. And the big point is that it’s not the watered down stuff that you (rightly) hate but the real stuff that she sees the common reader taking on — just like people used to do in the old WEAs.

    But it’s an interesting debate for sure. Here’s what Woolf says about truth and entertainment in (Greek) literature:

    ‘Truth is to be pursued with all our faculties. Are we to rule out the amusements, the tendernesses, the frivolities of friendship because we love truth? Will truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter’s night?’

    This is putting it the right way round, isn’t it? This is not talking to the ‘lowest common denominator’ but rather the pleasures are there to deepen and broaden the appeal to truth. Go on, I think you’d be her mate really!

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